YAOUNDÉ – Opponents of immigration into the EU typically make one or more of four arguments: immigrants are weakening Christian values, undermining liberal democratic institutions, bringing terrorism, and burdening public budgets. If these claims were true, the EU would be justified – if not obliged – to close its borders. In fact, none of them withstands scrutiny.
Begin with the loss of Christian cultural values, which has lately received a lot of attention in scholarly, political, and policy circles. Immigration opponents often point to the precipitous drop in the share of Europe’s population that identifies as Christian – from 66.3% in the early twentieth century to 25.9% in 2010– which they blame partly on the combination of high immigration from Muslim-majority countries and declining birth rates among native Europeans.
But anti-immigration groups have offered no significant empirical evidence to support this claim. In fact, when one actually looks at the data, the holes in their argument quickly become apparent.
For starters, the decline in the share of Christians in Europe does not correlate with an equivalent rise in the share of Muslims. According to Pew Research, the Muslim share of Europe’s population has been growing at a rate of about one percentage point per decade, from 4% in 1990 to 6% in 2010. In 2030, Muslims are projected to make up just 8% of Europe’s population.
In any case, immigrants to Europe aren’t all Muslim. Plenty of them, including from Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, are Christian. Add to that religious shifts among “native” Europeans, with many choosing not to attend church or identify as religious, and it seems clear that claims about immigrants diluting Christianity in Europe are not rooted in reality.
Of course, immigration opponents might argue that the threat to Europe is not so much a matter of official religion as of the values, cultivated in Europe’s Christian societies, that underpin liberal democratic institutions. Citing retrograde cultural practices – from the subjugation of women to violence against religious and sexual minorities – in the autocratic and crisis-prone countries from which immigrants often hail, their opponents often argue that people from these cultures cannot assimilate properly in Europe. According to figures like France’s Marine Le Pen, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, and Belgium’s Filip Dewinter, immigrants will bring their culture with them, thereby undermining European institutions. But, again, they offer no compelling evidence for this; nor do they differentiate among immigrant groups.
The truth is that some secular developing countries have their own democratic values and institutions, comparable to those in Europe; they may simply lack some of the economic opportunities Europe offers. Even immigrants who come from countries with autocratic governments and problematic cultural norms are, once in Europe, held to the same legal standard as Europeans. And they rarely run for any political office that would enable them to reshape European institutions.
Nonetheless, these immigrants, Europe’s right-wing politicians declare, could still bring religious fundamentalism with them, threatening Europeans with the terrorism that is tearing apart their home countries. This, too, is a flawed argument, for it conflates Islam and Islamist terrorism.
In fact, a very low proportion of the Muslim population is sympathetic to radical Islamic fundamentalism. As of 2010, there were an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide; there are obviously far fewer Islamist terrorists.
Even more damning for the populists’ argument is that individuals who were born and raised in the EU, not immigrants, have been largely responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Europe. And even they – often self-radicalized online – were not necessarily motivated by religion so much as by grievances over economic marginalization and stalled social mobility.
The final common argument against immigration to the EU is economic. Surveys show that a majority of Europeans believe that immigrants represent a heavy economic burden, owing to generous social-welfare schemes in many EU countries, and contribute little in return. And when immigrants aren’t sponging off the taxpayers, they’re suppressing their wages and taking their jobs.
So what is the truth? In the first few years after arrival, most immigrants do not pay taxes and depend on public services. But once immigrants have had a chance to settle into their new countries and acquire the relevant knowledge and training, they begin to contribute economically.
For Europe, where the population is aging fast, these contributions will prove critical. Indeed, in the longer term, today’s immigrants will become a vital engine of growth and source of tax revenues needed to fund social-welfare entitlements. Europeans simply must be willing to incur the short-term costs of integrating and training these individuals.
When arguing to keep people – especially refugees who are fleeing violence and persecution – out of the EU, one should at least have a solid case. After all, closing the borders to those in need is an extreme response – and one that runs counter to the Christian and European values immigration opponents claim to be defending. Yet no anti-immigrant political leader or group has managed to produce credible evidence to support such a response. So who is the real threat to the European way of life?